What Killed the Encyclopaedia?

For hundreds of years, right into the twenty-first century, many Western households would have at least three books – The Bible, a dictionary, and an encyclopaedia. Now, these are no longer the visible signs of a household with at least some aspirations to spiritual and earthly knowledge. When did you last see an encyclopaedia on someone’s books shelf?

Growing up, we had encyclopaedias not just for the adults, but for children too.  They were a staple birthday present, once you got into double digits. My husband was even more favoured; his family had the full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its own sturdy oak bookcase. What’s more, there was an entry in the geography section submitted by one of his uncles.

That set of encyclopaedias, and bookcase, was handed down to him when his mother bought a smaller house, and for many years they lived in our front room, referred to occasionally, and dusted only slightly more frequently.

But after a while we realised the tomes were being dusted far, far more often than they were being opened, and other books were piling up around the shelves. So, we sold the encyclopaedias (one of our few successful forays onto E-bay), and filled the book case with other books. I can’t say we have missed those 24 volumes at all.

The reason? The coming of the Internet and, on it, Wikipedia. Wikipedia, after all, is bang up to date, and so much easier to access than a book when you aren’t quite sure what it is you want to look up, but have a few key words. Purists may regard it as merely a reference book, rather than a proper encyclopaedia but, so long as you aren’t too credulous, it is a valuable tool for a researcher of any age.

And so quick! In fact, being the go-to instant source of knowledge is spelt out in its unique name. The term wiki comes from the Hawaiian wikiwiki meaning just that – quick. In contrast, the encyclopaedias Wikipedia has largely replaced, were written to provide knowledge within a wider remit in a slower paced world where an update every decade or so was just fine.

That’s what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they first came up with their enkyklios paideia. For them, the encyclopaedia was there to provide ‘an all-round (enkyklios) education (paideia).’ A full meal with side dishes, say, rather than a lite bite.

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